Skype, redesigned (again)

Microsoft is once again redesigning Skype — in order to make Skype great again. Or as a Microsoft executive puts it too “focus on simplicity* to provide an overall better experience for you by making Skype faster to learn and easier to use.” What he is not saying — Microsoft messed up Skype so bad that what was a market leading product is now an afterthought in modern daily communication flow.

From its inception, Skype was a fairly straightforward and highly usable product. It also was disruptive because it did an end run around the hegemony of the large phone companies. It strived to serve one master — the Skype user. Being a peer-to-peer based network, it was not reliable and yet, the value proposition for the product was so high that most of us put up with the temperamental nature of the product.

It became so big and popular that eBay bought it for billions. The founders left, but the company and the product kept growing. After a stint as a standalone company, it was time for Skype to be sold again — to Microsoft for more billions. At the time of the sale, it was the king of the hill.

This was before WhatsApp, Slack, Zoom, and FaceTime. It was the software (and service) everyone used to make phone calls, do video conferencing and use as for chat. It was one of the top apps on Apple’s App Store. The beauty and power of Skype were that it was a product with a consumer-focus that spread like wildfire in the business environment. Even IBM was using it. This is what made it attractive to Microsoft, which wanted to make it part of its family of communication products, to be sold to businesses.

In order to do so, they had to give it a Microsoft makeover. In a world of apps where people wanted simple and easy to use products, Microsoft kept making the software more complex. It jettisoned the peer-to-peer model. It added features and used design principles that only Dr. Evil could love.

They even added Highlights — Snapchat Stories —to the mix. Why? It made no sense. But if Safeway can sell Kombucha, then Skype can do Stories. “It is like Tim Tebow trying to be a baseball player,” I told Bloomberg reporters. As I pointed out earlier, “it is a terrible interface, inhuman and difficult to use. It lacks any imagination — a fact that is repeatedly reinforced on social media every time you bring up Skype and its user experience.”

Of course, it didn’t work and Microsoft admits that in the blog post:

As Skype functionality has expanded, so too has its complexity. As with any feature-rich product, maintaining simplicity while enhancing functionality is critical to usability. This past year we explored some design changes and heard from customers that we overcomplicated some of our core scenarios. Calling became harder to execute and Highlights didn’t resonate with a majority of users. We needed to take a step back and simplify!

A few months ago, the same Microsoft was dismissing the grumpiness of users around software updates. I suspect that grumpy users know a thing or two. Here is a message from grumpy users to all companies — especially big and bigger — we now live in a world saturated with options. Well designed, simple and elegant software (apps, if you may) is all around us. You can’t assume that your market share will allow you to keep pushing a substandard and poor experience in your products.

We are all more grumpy. And remember — we all got grumpy about phone companies, and we got Skype — a simple, easy to use and highly useful (if not pretty) product that was worth billions, and beloved by millions.

September 3, 2018, San Francisco

A letter from Om

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